September 5, 2012 – Twenty years ago this week, two friends and I set out on a journey of a lifetime. We boarded a Northwest flight bound for Seattle, hopped on a Greyhound bus headed for Vancouver, and embarked on a Holland America cruise ship that took us on a grand Alaskan adventure.
The cruise ship sailed at dusk and we spent the next full day at sea. On day three, we reached our first Alaskan stop in Ketchikan, a city filled with totem poles and built on water, much like the boardwalks at the Jersey Shore points. Ketchikan played a major role in the Yukon Gold Rush, as most miners made stops there to rest and buy supplies, hence the many bordellos and saloons we encountered on Creek Street, which remain authentically intact for tourists.
Juneau, Alaska’s capital and the next stop on the journey, is where life lesson number one hit me of the blue: (Never spend more time in your stateroom than you have to). That night at dinner we learned that there were several playful whales putting on quite a show for all the passengers on deck. Unfortunately, my friends and I didn’t see them; we were too busy reliving our second childhood and jumping on the beds in the stateroom.
Upon leaving Juneau, we sailed up the beautiful Lynn Canal to Skagway. I’ve never been to Switzerland or Austria, but the snow-capped mountains on both sides of the canal is exactly how I picture those countries.
The next morning we walked through Skagway, a quaint Alaskan town, where I learned life lesson number two: (Be considerate of your surroundings). Though the calendar said it was summer, the hurricane that hit Hawaii earlier that week caused the Alaskan temperatures to plummet. Aside from a few sweatshirts that I had packed, I had little else to keep me warm, so I hit the Skagway streets in search of gloves. The only place that carried them early in the season was a general store, and one not necessarily for tourists. The gloves in stock were made of seals’ skin; I mentioned to my friends that I was politically opposed to buying them, just the same as I was to eating the reindeer sausage the waitress offered me at breakfast. The man who owned the store overheard me, and when I asked if he had any knit gloves available, he said he did not. He also scolded me dismissing the way of life in the Alaskan wilderness, and for talking about things I didn’t understand. He was right, of course. I bought those gloves, and I’m glad I did because we were about to get hit with a major snow storm.
We left Skagway by train that took us to Whitehorse, Canada, the beginning of the Yukon Territory. The open windows presented us with a chilly ride, but spectacular scenery. Along the way, the snow began to fall, and I caught a major cold. When we reached our destination, I headed to a drug store to buy cough medicine. Surprisingly I didn’t know many of the brands, and the dosages were written in French, so I had to improvise. And that’s where life lesson number three came into play. (Be wary of taking medicine when you can’t read the directions). The stuff worked fabulously on my cold, but the next morning, as we boarded a bus to take us back to Alaska, and onto Fairbanks, my cough had returned. I took another dosage of the mystery medicine, and each time the bus stopped for a photo opportunity or rest room break, I’d wake up, stand and hit my head on the television monitor above each seat, which prompted the woman who sat in back of me to say, “Honey, maybe you shouldn’t take any more of that medicine.” Looking back, I suppose I picked the right day to zone out. The bus drove north into the storm, about 18 inches of snow fell making travel nearly impossible, and we spent 20 hours on that bus stranded on the side of the road, or trying to make our way to the next stop. There were plenty of scared and frustrated passengers during that treacherous stretch of snow-covered highway, but I was unaware, sleeping through the entire crisis.
The bus driver finally got us to a lodge where we were able to stay the night, and the next day as we waited out the storm with the roads still pretty impassable, the tour guides decided it was best to fly us into Fairbanks instead. Upon boarding, the pilots told us too watch the sky; there was a possibility it would be cold enough to see the Northern Lights. Life lesson number four. (Don’t believe everything you hear). Unfortunately, the Aurora Borealis didn’t make an appearance that night, but we arrived in Fairbanks safely and the snow had finally stopped.
Soon the roads were clear, and we were back on a bus headed to Denali National Park, the home of the famous Mt. McKinley, or Mt. Denali, as the locals call it. The park was spectacular, but the day was cloudy, so we couldn’t see the top of Denali.
Along the way we made stops at Mendenhall and Portage glaciers, where we got to see a calving – large blocks of ice fall into the water causing a spectacular sight and major ripple effect – and in Anchorage, which is surprisingly quite cosmopolitan. We also visited Seward, a few hours south of Anchorage, and Alyeska, famous for its ski resorts.
Over all, it was a fabulous trip, and after 10 days in the Alaskan wilderness, we boarded a Northwest flight in Anchorage, flew directly to Minneapolis, and made our connection back to Philadelphia. Before leaving, I told the driver who took us to the airport that I loved Alaska so much, I wanted to move there. It was he who taught me life lesson number five: (Don’t make statements like that until you survive your first Alaskan winter).